Gazans returning to war-ravaged Jabalia ‘shocked’ by destruction

Mohammed Al-Najjar, a 33-year-old Gazan, said Saturday he was “shocked” and felt “lost” as he returned home to find much of the Jabalia refugee camp in ruins after a Israeli offensive.

“All the houses have been reduced to ruins,” Najjar told AFP in Jabalia, in the northern Gaza Strip.

“You are lost, you don’t know where exactly your home is in the middle of this massive destruction.”

Israeli forces have carried out a massive bombing campaign in Jabalia in recent weeks, part of a fierce ground offensive in northern Gaza – an area the army had previously declared outside the control of Hamas militants.

“I was shocked by the scale of the destruction during the latest assault on the Jabalia camp,” Najjar said.

In recent days, AFP correspondents have seen dozens of Palestinians streaming into the region, trying to return to their homes and salvage what was left of them.

Men, women and children walked the streets where their homes once stood, now full of gray concrete slabs.

Charred furniture, beds and mangled iron doors littered almost every street in the camp, a once bustling area home to more than 100,000 people, according to pre-war U.N. figures.

Many families carried their belongings on carts pulled by donkeys, while others walked with beds and mattresses on their heads.

“We have no place other than our homes,” said Suad Abu Salah, 47, who also returned after fleeing the region at the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, which is now approaching its eighth month.

But “Jabalia has been wiped off the map,” she said.

The war was sparked by Hamas’ unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel, which left 1,189 people dead, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

The militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, of whom 37 died according to the army.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,379 people in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to the Hamas-controlled territory’s health ministry.

– ‘Stay on our land’ –

Despite the destruction, Najjar said people were “determined” to return to the neighborhoods they had left to avoid the fighting.

Residents were ready to “set up tents and temporary shelters amid the rubble,” he said, even though there is “fear, fear that the (Israeli) occupation will return.”

“But we will stay on our land. We have nowhere else.”

On Friday, the Israeli army announced that it had completed its mission in eastern Jabalia, where it had previously announced that Hamas militants had regrouped.

On Saturday, residents of Jabalia said they could still hear constant gunfire and artillery coming from the east.

New fighting broke out in the north in early May, around the same time that Israeli troops took control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.

In the latest operation, Israeli forces in Jabalia recovered the bodies of seven hostages, and last month the army reported “perhaps the most violent” fighting since the start of the war.

Mahmud Assaliyah, 50, said “houses were demolished and entire buildings were completely destroyed in Jabalia.”

“There is not a single house that has not been targeted by the Israeli occupation army.”

He returned to find that his house had also been razed.

“Cement pillars fell, walls were destroyed, furniture was scattered, set on fire and torn apart,” Assaliyah said.

Abu Salah said many residents are tired of being displaced and simply want to stay put, no matter what.

“We want to live like other people in the world,” she said.

“We need a solution and an end to this war, so we can live in peace.”